Prosperity bridgeGeographical complexities with China and political complexities with India affect Nepal’s ‘transit diplomacy’
The ‘geography hypothesis’ that Nepal could be a viaduct between China and India is still emphasised, although Nepal lacks inclusive economic institutions and infrastructural development to start such an arrangement. But the initiatives of the Indian government to attain development and prosperity and the unrivalled infrastructural and technological development of China have given hope of spillover effects to many Nepalis.
However, because of the events that unfolded after Nepal promulgated its constitution last year, its over-dependence on India is being regretted and closeness with China prioritised. In recent times, China and India have strengthened their economic relations despite their contentious border issues and political differences. This also works in the interest of Nepal, because it aspires to get rid of the conventional cliché of being identified as a land-locked country and escape the political cliché of being branded as an ‘India-locked’ country.
Such aspirations have heightened the discourse that Nepal is not land locked between India and China, but land-linked between them. However, this discourse is not entirely a novel one. The late king Birendra had stated back in 1973 that “Nepal is not a part of the [Indian] subcontinent; it is really that part of Asia which touches both China and India.” Redefining the geostrategic position of Nepal, he had dismissed the dependency on India and advocated tapping the geopolitical opportunities that Nepal has owing to its location between the two giants.
Poor bordering areas
Affluent Indian states and prosperous Chinese provinces are geographically far away from Nepal’s borders. Nepal borders the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China on the northern side. Tibet is the highest region on earth, which points to the geographical complexities for trade and transport in and through the area. Moreover, due to the lack of required infrastructures such as roads and railways connecting Nepal and China, trade between the two countries has suffered. Nepal experienced the drawbacks of not having proper trade routes during the recent Indian blockade. According to historian John Whelpton, “Nepal’s dependence on India might be radically reduced through further economic development in Tibet and by restoring the old trade route from India to Tibet via Kathmandu.” But without India and China on board, such an arrangement is not likely.
Among the Indian states, Nepal borders Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Sikkim. UP is the most populous and the fourth largest Indian state. Several Indian prime ministers came from UP and the largest number of legislators to the Indian parliament are also from the state. Yet it is tagged as one of the least developed states of India. Recurrent episodes of communal and caste-based violence, lack of economic development, high crime rates and corruption have overshadowed its political influence.
Bihar is the 12th largest Indian state by area and the third largest by population. However, in terms of socio-economic development, Bihar has lagged far behind other states because of widespread poverty, corruption and caste-ridden social order.
Nepal shares strong social ties with India. The Madhesis dwelling in the southern plains of Nepal have strong socio-cultural ties to the neighbouring Indian states of Bihar and UP. Many had the perception that the Madhesi movement after the endorsement of Nepal’s constitution was backed by India as a support for the Madhesi agenda and an attack on the sovereignty of Nepal. The leaders of the Madhes-based parties meeting former Indian minister Lalu Prasad Yadav at the latter’s residence in Bihar during the Madhes agitation drew criticism from various quarters in Nepal. In addition, the issue of Indian encroachment on the borders has also been straining Nepal-India relations.
Geographical complexities with Tibet and political complexities with India are the major factors affecting Nepal’s ‘transit diplomacy’ through which it hopes to attain prosperity. Besides the geography hypothesis (located between India and China) and the culture hypothesis (close social ties with India), inclusive economic institutions at home are essential for not just generating prosperity but also for simplifying geopolitical complexities. Nepal needs to show its preparedness on the political, economic and psychological fronts prior to identifying itself as a bridge between the two giant neighbours. Resolving political disputes with India and reducing geographical complexities with China could be a starting point. Taking the initiatives to bring the Tatopani customs point into operation and resolving the Madhes crisis would go a long way towards achieving better and closer ties with both our neighbours.
Bhattarai is pursuing a master’s in International Relations and Diplomacy at Tribhuvan University